On the Minneapolis RiotsMay 31st, 2020
Rugby is my dad’s religion. But his is a working class faith. He had grown up on the old West Cumberland Coalfield where every pit village had a rugby club – of one code or another. He was hewn from the same rock as the men who, having finished an early shift at the coal face, would walk to the rugby ground to play a game. Men whose toughness on the pitch was matched only by their courage working in some of the most dangerous mines in Europe.
In August 1977, my parents participated in a teaching exchange to Coon Rapids Senior High School in the northwest suburbs of Minneapolis. Dad had wanted to head to one of the coasts – as that was where the rugby was. But having been billeted to the Midwest, he found the rugby club and their captain arranged to meet them at the airport.
In the USA, rugby is an elite sport – played most seriously at top universities: In the Ivy League and at top Liberal Arts colleges. And this was reflected in his team mates at Minneapolis Rugby Club. They included alumni of Stanford, Dartmouth and Williams College, along with budding surgeons, lawyers and politicians. Indeed one went onto serve as Federal Attorney – and another as US Senator. This was a bit of a culture shock for the lad from Lowca!
Dad’s blunt northern humour would frequently clash with Minnesota Nice – often (but by no means always) – with hilarious consequences. But he excelled on the pitch – and could have played for the US Eagles had my parents decided to stay permanently. Needless to say, he made a real impact on the rugby community – and many lasting friends. We visited often throughout my childhood – and played host to many guests.
My memories of Minnesota are idyllic. I have fond memories of swimming in Lake Harriet, jet skiing across Lake Wayzata and staying in friends’ cabins in the woods up north. Of the shopping in the many shopping malls and of Camp Snoopy at the Mall of America.
But it is the beauty of these memories that have cast a shadow in recent days. You see, we only ever encountered one Minnesota. The one of shiny skyscrapers and Fortune 500 companies. Of endless leafy suburbs peppered with lakes and crossed by biking trails. Of homes with Jacuzzis, swimming pools and heated garages and on lake frontages. Of youngsters in honors programs and aspirations to top colleges.
We did not meet the other Minnesota because the worlds did not mix. We had no black friends – or indeed working class friends. The inner city was another world – one to steer clear of for safety reasons. But perhaps “safety” was borne of the same white fragility that killed George Floyd.
During my university years, I undertook an internship with the Hennepin County Attorney – the criminal prosecutions office for the city of Minneapolis and its inner suburbs. I was given a tour of the prison which, to my horror, only had black inmates. How could this be in a county that was majority white? I was also struck by the sheer volume of files on cases for incredibly minor drugs offences. I have never been an advocate of liberalising our drugs laws. But I’d be interested to know how many of those files were on black men.
My parents lived in Minnesota again when I was in my mid-twenties. Dad took up high school rugby coaching in which he excelled. At one point he suggested setting up teams in the inner city schools. He was interested in tapping into the elite black American Football players, who, he thought would be brilliant at rugby. He was met with a wall of resistance that could only be explained with racism.
Minnesota is not Alabama. Quite the opposite, in fact. It excels in most quality of life indices: in life expectancy, infant mortality, educational attainment. It is not dominated by the Southern Baptist Church, but rather the more progressive Lutheran Church due to the state’s settlement by Scandinavians and Germans. Slavery was never legal, nor did it endure its aftermath.
And more to the point, Minnesotans are nice. Really nice. They aren’t ones to shout unpleasantries at others simply because of their skin colour. But it is possible to passively support systems of inequality whilst at the same time being pleasant to people. It’s even more possible if you never interact with people of a different skin colour.
Dad grew up on the stories of Winston Churchill sending troops to mining communities to curtail protests. His was a people who had been on the wrong side of the “Establishment”. Recent days have taught us on which side we belong.